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Where Asian refugees learn the basics of daily life in the US

MR. HEE picks a card from the teacher and reads it. ``I have a wife and three children and a job at Dunkin' Donuts,'' he says. ``I make $850 a month.'' He looks at the map on the blackboard. ``OK, I rent the brick house in Chicago near the school and bus stop.'' The class nods approvingly. He has made a good choice. Hee is not in Chicago. He is in the Philippine Refugee Processing Center on the Bataan Peninsula, where a unique educational program is being carried out.

Established in 1980, this refugee camp is the site of the largest ongoing ESL (English as a second language) program in the world and an imaginative cultural and work orientation program serving between 10,000 and 16,000 Indochinese refugees at a time. Hee is learning how to choose a place to live in the United States, where he will be going three months from now.

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This class exists almost by accident. The camp did not start out with a training program, says James Williard, deputy refugee programs coordinator. It was to be simply a ``regulator'' of the flow of refugees into the US. ``Once they were to be there,'' says Mr. Williard, ``it was, of course, evident that it would be good to use the time.'' The education program resulted.

Funded by the US Department of State, it is carried out through contracts with private organizations such as the International Catholic Migration Commission and the World Relief Corporation, which, although church affiliated, teach an entirely secular curriculum. The administrators are American and Filipino, and the teachers in the classroom are all Filipino. The students are Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees on their way to the US.

``What we are doing is preparing new Americans for life in the United States,'' says Anna Velazco, a camp administrator. This preparation means six months of intensive learning for all those aged 18 to 25 in three programs - ESL, cultural orientation, and work orientation - and has become the focus of daily life in the camp. When the students arrive (around 2,000 a month), they are grouped according to English proficiency. The challenges begin immediately; some of the refugees not only do not know English, but they are also ``pre-literate'' in their own tongues.

``Some have never held a pencil or seen a piece of paper,'' says Anne Dykstra of the Center for Applied Linguistics. ESL comes first. ``There isn't anything more important than English for the refugees,'' says Williard.

The refugees concur, usually citing English as their greatest concern. ``I am young and I can work,'' says one Vietnamese man, ``but I worry, can I understand English?''

Administrators insist, however, that it is not only English that they are teaching. ``Competency in language is not necessarily in terms of vocabulary and grammar,'' says Ms. Dykstra. ``We try to integrate ESL with culture.''

This integration goes on in cultural orientation, which teaches ``culturally specific situations.'' That means that it covers such essentials as what is a bathtub (it is not for washing clothes) or how to how to use a cafeteria or a pop machine (where to put the money).

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This program puts students into realistic situations, teaching them not only the situations they might be confronted with but also the correct way to respond. There are simulated airplanes, doctors' offices, and buses. ``When you are a Laotian farmer, the fact that you get on one door of a bus and get out another can be terribly confusing,'' says a teacher, ``and it may inhibit you from using public transport in the US.''

There is ``Bureaucratic Bingo,'' in which Miss Kung's wallet, social security card, refugee card, and bank checks are ``lost'' and she must go from police station to bank to motor bureau (all ``staffed'' by teachers and administrators) filling out forms and - the hard part - speaking English.

Sometimes it ends with the student in tears, sometimes in triumph. Either way, says Paulette Coburn, director of the cultural orientation program, they have to do it. ``We teach reality here.''

Ms. Coburn says her program is ``designed around specific problem areas that we have found in the US.'' The camp constantly receives information from America on what the refugees need to know.

The third part of the training - work orientation - deals with the intricacies of working in America, from job applications to interviews to the American concept of time. In some classes, the students punch in with time cards. The door is marked ``Employee Entrance.''

``In Cambodia it is polite to show up two hours early for a job interview,'' says Frank DiGiacomo, a curriculum writer at the camp. ``In the US that's a little weird. On the other hand, the refugees get sick, don't call in for three days because they don't grasp why they should, and then when they get back to work can't understand why they don't have a job anymore. We tell them why.'' ``We talk about punctuality, cleanliness, respect for the customer, all sorts of Western concepts they may never have heard of,'' says Williard.

The program aims to ease cultural differences. Pat Hunter of the work orientation program, who is fluent in Lao, recounts stories of Laotian refugees in America taking welfare checks and working at the same time. ``They've never been verbally told they shouldn't, and the Lao live in a verbal, personal culture. Sure, there's a piece of paper explaining to them, but when they get caught, their honest reaction is still, `No one told us.' So you have to teach that in America people are as real on paper.''

She says cultural differences are handled with a ``This is your way, this is ours'' method. ``We always acknowledge what they do, which makes it easier to contrast it with American practice. It makes it a little easier for them to grasp.''

On the other hand, sophisticated refugees also make mistakes. Teachers say they have had to explain to urbane, educated former residents of Saigon that the correct response to being stopped by a policeman in Washington, D.C., is not opening negotiations for the bribe, as would normally be done in Vietnam. The program is far from trouble free. There is criticism that methodology has been carried too far, with difficult points of American law introduced to classes unable to understand them. Some say the camp, isolated in Bataan and operating on a six-day workweek, is a difficult place to live. There are also criticisms of the curriculum.

In the opinion of some, the cultural hurdles that need to be crossed are the most discouraging. ``We never finish,'' says Ms. Hunter. ``How can you teach everything about a culture? It's hard on the teachers. There's never a feeling of `I've done it!''' Some question how well the issue of racism in the US is dealt with, an issue the refugees are well aware of.

As for the refugees, many would just as soon skip the program - and the six months it consumes - and go directly to the US, the administrators say.

``Some of them have been waiting in prison for years,'' says Williard. ``Some in first-asylum camps, maybe they already have relatives in the US. They just want to get there at this point.''

He adds that they usually recognize later that the time in class was well spent, not only for specific information like how to conduct a job interview, but also in overall adjustment.

``We can't make them new people,'' Coburn says, ``but we can give them alternatives. We say, `You are adults, and in America you will have these choices.'''

There are some things the program cannot do. It cannot help the refugees avoid the pain of losing their culture. ``We have a good program,'' says Hunter. ``Even so, the human cost is high. The children adjust. They sit next to each other in school, they speak English. The adults...''

The purpose of the program, and the camp, is humanitarian. The budget for the education portion is almost $10 million. Knowing this, the refugees themselves ask why, if Americans already in America are poor, is money being spent on them? Why all this for refugees?

Williard has an answer. ``They are the newest wave,'' he says. ``The next new blood. We benefit from refugees, immigrants. Here, we're just helping them start out.''

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